I do not fall into the category of cyclists that have been obsessed with bikes since they were kids, that found their freedom exploring on two wheels or whose identity is tied up with coaster brakes and 1/8" chains. I had a succession of bikes when I was younger -- a big wheel, if that counts, a Schwinn BMX bike with a sweet checkerboard top tube pad, a blue Panasonic 10 speed with safety levers and stem-mounted shifters that I found terminally embarrassing. I toured my street on the first, friends' neighborhoods on the second and Nova Scotia on the last, but when each was done, I moved on to something else; I was never drawn strongly to bicycles.
When I moved to California for grad school, I decided that I needed to figure out a new and more regular exercise plan. Cycling is very popular in Northern California and for good reason -- there's a lot of amazing riding to be done. I bought by first "adult" bike, a 2001 LeMond Buenos Aires built with Reynolds 853 steel, and then my second, a Soma Rush fixed gear, and began to put on miles. Not a ton, but a steady stream, as I rode the same few 20-35 mile routes around Stanford for a chance to talk with a friend or escape from the library. I tried some of the famous climbs in the area -- Page Mill, Old La Honda -- but never got far, mostly because I saw the tops of these steep ascents as all but unattainable, reserved for the skinny, super-fit "real cyclists" on the road. In truth, I sabotaged myself from the start
After four years in and around Palo Alto, I again moved, this time to Boulder, CO. Without the regular schedule of coursework, I had a lot more time to ride and began to explore the area. I quickly learned that climbing was central to Colorado cycling and that the climbs were, if anything, harder than those in California. While generally not as steep, Colorado Front Range climbs are often very long -- 15 to 20 miles is not at all unusual. Perhaps these, too, were only for the fleetest of pedalers. So I continued to ride routes with shorter climbs -- rollers, really -- wondering whether I could get strong enough to make it up Lefthand, St. Vrain or any of the other famous Boulder climbs.
The spring following the move, the snows melted and I decided to find out. Joining an annual April ride departing from Lyons, north of Boulder, I found myself on the lower stretches of the 17 mile ascent up Lefthand Canyon to Ward and the Peak to Peak Highway. In the past, I often tried to charge up big climbs, going as hard as I could from the start; this rather idiotic approach was a holdout from nordic racing in high school, which were all-out 5K sprints ("go out hard, pick it up in the middle, finish fast," was my coach's mantra). That I couldn't apply this strategy to cycling hadn't really connected for me until this April morning. Determined to go as far up the canyon as I could, I settled in to a calm, even pace with several other riders and wondered how long it would take to cross the miles to the top, or if I even could.
Newfound conservative pacing notwithstanding, the climb was not easy. Ultimately, 17 miles at nearly 4% grade proved a long, long way to go -- a reality hardly aided by the last 3 miles averaging 10% that followed the ominously named "Turn of Events." I made it to Ward, however, and beyond -- up onto the Peak to Peak, over its rollers at nearly 9500' elevation, and back down into Lyons. Along the way, I passed riders and got passed by riders, finding that I was neither the skinniest nor the slowest; I learned that I could choose my pace and that if I was patient, I would get to the top; and I discovered the cycling could be my route to seeing a great portion of Colorado that I would otherwise miss out on, beautiful vistas taken in at a human pace.
Most importantly, however, I learned that in a life that often feels very much beyond my grasp, cycling is one thing I can control. I am the sole determiner of success or failure. I decide whether to go on or turn back, whether a climb is too steep or too hard, whether a day is too long or my feet hurt too much. When I returned home that day, for a few hours I truly felt filled with pride. In the three plus years since then, successes on the bike -- Denver to Aspen in one day, my first 600k -- have brought me that same feeling, putting me in touch with a world that, however briefly, seems absolutely filled with possibility and potential.
I don't want to paint a picture of my life as one filled with quiet desperation, though it certainly has its moments. It's just that riding my bike starts with my body and extends to my mind, precisely the reverse of many situations I find so frustrating in my life. I've found that by challenging myself in this way, I can put my finger on something tangible that I am good at, something in which I can reach my goals, making it easier to envision success in other areas.